The week after Elvis Presley died, he did not get on the cover of People magazine. In fact, it wasn’t until three issues later, the one dated September 5, 1977, that his name was even mentioned, and even then, there was no picture on the cover. (That honor went to Dan Rather, and a story about the possibility he would be Walter Cronkite’s heir.) While this seems absurd to us now—and the magazine’s founding editor called it the biggest mistake the magazine ever made—it made sense then. Celebrity culture was not the all-consuming monster it is now; People in those days preferred to put women on its covers; Elvis was perceived (rightly or wrongly) as a regional star, more popular in the South than in the North.
When Elvis died, fans came from across the country, joining the throng of Memphis locals at Graceland, the church, the cemetery. Vendors sold memorabilia in the streets. Some TV coverage of Presley’s mourners took a mildly critical tone, but only because nobody had ever seen a display quite like it. Old-timers compared it to the death of movie star Rudolph Valentino in 1927. Here in 2015, it looks completely normal to us. Just as Elvis was a pioneer of rock ‘n’ roll, he pioneered the fan response to celebrity death.
In 1997, The Mrs. and I visited Graceland. Before we’d gotten back to the parking lot, I started composing the following piece in my head. When I got home, I sold it to the newspaper in the town where we lived. I’ve never posted it at this blog, so here it is. Because it’s really long, I’m splitting it into three parts. Part 1 is on the flip.
As we approach the 20th anniversary of the death of Elvis Presley this August, fans and commentators will be heard to say “there was only one Elvis.” But they’re wrong. There were several Elvises, each one created as much by us as by Presley himself.
Call the earliest version Rockin’ Elvis, the one to whom John Lennon said, “Before you, man, there was nothing.” He’s the Elvis of Sun Records, “Heartbreak Hotel,” and The Ed Sullivan Show, a pop-culture phenomenon like no other in American history. Adults belittled “Elvis the Pelvis,” but the 50s generation knew the truth. Rockin’ Elvis didn’t create rock and roll, but he was surely its king.
Rockin’ Elvis became a movie star with astonishing speed in the late 50s. In 29 films over a span of 11 years, he kept singing, but gradually became Movie Elvis, star of cookie-cutter quickies. In fairness to him, a few of his films had some cinematic merit, but to many members of the 60s generation, Movie Elvis may have been something sometime, but not anymore.
Presley himself grew tired of Movie Elvis, and attempted to resurrect Rockin’ Elvis beginning in 1968, when a famous TV concert did exactly that. He returned to Memphis to record for the first time since the mid 50s, and the results were spectacular. But yet another Elvis was ready to appear.
Enter Fat Elvis—a drug-addicted libertine whose precise appeal was hard for the 70s generation to explain. To them, he was neither the king of rock and roll nor a movie idol, but a has-been, whose death on August 16, 1977, was bewildering not simply because it happened, but because of the way fans of the earlier Elvises reacted to it.
The generation born since the early 70s knows only one Elvis firsthand—the cultural phenomenon author Greil Marcus calls Dead Elvis. Another author called Dead Elvis “the pet rock of the 80s,” citing the endless stream of t-shirts, liquor decanters, and other bric-a-brac bearing his likeness. In recent years, the continuing rumors that Elvis is still alive have further trivialized him into a kitschy cultural sideshow.
So there are at least four Elvises, and their existence poses a question: which one is the “real” one? A better question is: in what proportion do these four Elvises constitute the real one? To find out, there’s only one place to go—Graceland.
Part 2 will appear on Monday.